January 14, 2014
Update: Both the House and Senate passed the omnibus package this week, and the President is expected to sign the bill shortly. For a detailed breakdown of the funding levels provided in the bill, see our updated appropriations chart.
On Monday, January 13, House and Senate appropriators released the text of the fiscal year (FY) 2014 omnibus appropriations bill and report, which will fund the government through the remainder of FY 2014.
The current continuing funding resolution expires tomorrow (Wednesday) at midnight. However, Congress is expected to finalize a three-day extension before that time in order to give itself a few extra days to pass the omnibus legislation. The House is expected to begin to take up the omnibus tomorrow, while the Senate consideration could be as late as Saturday. Ultimately, the appropriations legislation is expected to pass be sent to the President for his signature before next week.
The completion of the omnibus is a major accomplishment for appropriators, given how many controversial riders were proposed and how far apart the House and Senate were on some Subcommittee funding levels. It is also a very significant step toward shifting from repeated continuing resolutions to regular order.
Research, Education, and Extension
The agriculture portion of the omnibus builds upon successful investments in sustainable agriculture research, rural development, conservation, and credit programs. We are particularly thrilled that the bill provides $22.7 million for the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program, the highest funding level since NSAC helped create the program in the late 1980s. That funding level is 18 percent greater than the previous highest level for the program. SARE is the only USDA competitive grant research program with a clear and consistent focus on sustainability and farmer-driven research.
The bill accepts the Presidents’ FY 2014 budget proposal to consolidate three functions of the SARE program (research, extension and professional development, and matching grants) into one line item, but makes clear in report language that all three components should continued to be funded in the future as they have been in previous years.
Both the Organic Transitions research program and the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service (also known as “ATTRA”) receive funding on par with 2012 levels, or $4 and $2.25 million respectively. The Agriculture and Food Research Initiative – USDA’s largest competitive grants research program – receives $316 million, which represents a 15 percent increase in funding over FY13 levels.
There is also a significant increase in funding for organic data collection – the omnibus makes $2.25 million available to fund a follow on survey to the Census of Agriculture specifically on organic agriculture. However, the bill does not explicitly provide funding for other organic data initiatives including marketing and economic reports that are relevant to organic producers, though we assume continued funding is explicit; we are in the process of confirming that. Together, this is an increase over historic levels, and given the uncertainty of funding that has been proposed in the Farm Bill and the anticipated data needs related to the ongoing agriculture census, this funding is absolutely critical in ensuring the success of the organic sector.
We are very pleased that the omnibus package contains no funding cuts — known as Changes in Mandatory Program Spending (CHIMPS) — to the Conservation Stewardship Program, Agricultural Water Enhancement Program, Chesapeake Bay Watershed Initiative, Farmland Protection Program, Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program, Agricultural Management Assistance program, or Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP). A proposed cut in the House FY 2014 agriculture appropriations bill would have limited the FY 2014 WRP enrollment to 71,104 acres, a cut of over 193,000 acres.
While the omnibus mostly abstains from making CHIMPS, the bill does limit funding for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program to $1.35 billion from its farm bill funding level of $1.75 billion. Whether or not the pending five-year farm bill will attempt to overcome that limitation for FY 2014 remains to be seen.
The omnibus provides $813 million for USDA’s Conservation Operations account, which is an increase of $46 million over last year’s post-sequestration level of $767 million. USDA’s ability to deliver conservation programs to farmers and ranchers depends heavily on on-the-ground conservation technical assistance, which makes up the bulk of the Conservation Operations account. Even at $813 million, however, Conservation Operations would be $15 million below its FY 2012 funding level. Still it is a step back in the right direction.
Importantly, the new appropriations bill does not include any provision to spend any of the potential proceeds of the conservation user fee included as part of the congressional budget deal reached in December. NSAC is opposed to the imposition of that tax on farmers to sign up for voluntary conservation efforts, and is glad to see the appropriators turn down the chance to spend that potential new revenue. NSAC continues to urge the farm bill conferees to nip the user fee option in the bud.
Rural Development and Farm Loan Programs
For the first time since 2010, the appropriations bill increases funding for the Value-Added Producer Grants (VAPG) program from $13.8 million in FY 2013 to $15 million in FY 2014. Funding for the program has been cut by more than 30 percent over the last several appropriations cycles. This is very welcome news.
The bill provides a substantial increase to the local and regional food enterprise set aside within the Business and Industry guaranteed loan program, for a total amount of $47.9 million for FY14. The bill also provides a significant increase in funding for direct farm loans made through USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA), including $575 million for ownership loans and $1.2 billion for operating loans. Year after year, FSA has had to turn farmers away – many of them aspiring or beginning farmers – for lack of sufficient funding to meet the high demand for farm loans. This funding will allow FSA to begin to address the substantial backlog of approved but unfunded loan applications, and increase access to credit for farmers. Funding for FSA loan personnel remains a problem, however.
Unfortunately, the omnibus legislation provides no discretionary funding for the Rural Microenterprise Assistance Program (RMAP). This program has received no money in any of the past three appropriations bills, and is one of the “stranded programs” as a result of Congress’s inability to pass a farm bill. We are hopeful that renewed mandatory funding will be made available when the farm bill is finalized; we also hope the farm bill funding level will be adjusted upward given the lack of discretionary, appropriated dollars.
The omnibus includes the anti-farmer and rancher policy rider often referred to as the GIPSA rider, which undermines protections for livestock and poultry farmers who farm under contract with multinational meatpacking corporations. NSAC strongly opposes this rider, which was added to the House appropriations bill last year via amendment. This is an affront to fairness for farmers and is an unfortunate example of legislating on an appropriations bill on behalf of a very few powerful corporations. Thankfully, the rider does not include the forced withdrawal of pro-farmer rules that have already been finalized by USDA, but it does block additional rulemaking to protect farmers and ranchers. An even worse proposal, included in the House-passed farm bill but not the Senate-passed farm bill, is possibly up for a vote in the farm bill conference. We are encouraging farm bill conferees to take no action to weaken enforcement of laws to ensure marketplace competition and fair practices.
Important Report Language
The bill includes new report language supporting FDA’s decision to rewrite and seek public comment on aspects of its proposed Food Safety Modernization Act regulations. NSAC agrees with the assessment in the final conference report and will continue to push for rules that work for sustainable farmers and food businesses.
The report maintains existing report language to promote public research, local food systems, and organic agriculture. First, previous report language encourages the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) to invest in research, methods, and tools that support classical plant breeding. The language encourages the development of public cultivars and breeds as part of the general classical breeding research program, and requests that the Agency submit its implementation plans to the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittees.
The report maintains existing report language directing USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) to coordinate USDA sub-agencies that are involved in data collection, analysis, and research on the production, pricing, distribution, and marketing of locally and regionally produced agricultural products and to identify gaps in the data. The language requests that ERS provide a report that assesses the scope and trends in local and regional food systems.
Finally, the omnibus report re-emphasizes existing language from the House and Senate FY 2014 bills stating that USDA’s Risk Management Agency (RMA) is moving too slowly in developing and offering crop insurance options (known as price elections) for organic farmers. The language requests a report from USDA detailing the Department’s plan and timetable for implementing organic price elections for all organic crops.
Note to Readers: We will be posting our appropriations chart showing funding for a wide variety of key programs on the NSAC website by the end of the week.
Categories: Budget and Appropriations, Commodity, Crop Insurance & Credit Programs, Competition & Anti-trust, Conservation, Energy & Environment, Food Safety, Local & Regional Food Systems, Organic, Research, Education & Extension, Rural Development